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Empathy Through Music: Using Ethnography to Capture the Power of The Spirituals Project

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Zoi Johns

Ethnography Lab Research Assistant

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Music is this fundamental form of human expression. We have all these tools to express ourselves and understand our experiences and the world around us and music is a way of accessing and understanding those experiences” -Professor Aleysia Whitmore.

The above quote captures much of the driving beliefs behind the ethnographic work of Marquisha Scott and Aleysia Whitmore. This project is filled with passion and empathy, and a commitment to a creating a community where both can thrive. Scott and Whitmore are working on the Sacred Sounds and Social Justice project at the University of Denver.

Professor Scott focuses on mediating structures, like community organizations, and how they support outcomes (specifically youth outcomes). Professor Whitmore focuses on ethnomusicology, music as culture, and how different community arts function. Together, they make up the research team for this project, where they research The Spirituals Project, a community music group who focuses on the power of music in respect to education and social justice on both interpersonal and community levels.

The Spirituals Project was founded in 1998 by Arthur C. Jones with a mission to present music and teachings of folk songs called “spirituals”. Spirituals were created and sung by enslaved Africans in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. These sacred songs engaged and expressed issues of freedom, racial injustice, religion and survival. They are sung today to revive and persevere the same spiritual power and are riddled with emotion and language in which the community choir not only sings but feels. Ideas of freedom, the escape to freedom and slave owners’ hypocrisy are all components of the music. While this choir is housed in DU’s Lamont School of Music, they remain open to the entire community and urge people to join or attend their shows.

The interracial choir comes together to sing and educate about spiritual songs and the stories that come with them. While they have recently become majority white, they have committed to addressing the new demographic with a critical lens. It is a new development that is not only noticed but taken seriously. They are passionate about not only the emotive potential their performances hold but also social justice and advocacy in the community. The choir has committed to this mission which informs goals and motivations for the group.

Throughout the community, the spirituals have partnered with various organizations, allowing members of Denver to interact and learn from the music. Whitmore is a member of the choir, alongside Scott’s husband, and is the Spirituals Project Faculty Affiliate. As a frequent audience member, Marquisha Scott loves seeing the effects of the choir and the sounds on the people that to see the shows. In between songs, M. Roger Holland, the choir director, will talk about various educational pieces regarding what the spirituals are and specific details to individual songs. Holland also directs the American heritage Chorale—a student ensemble.

Scott and Whitmore’s research is primarily concerned with the impact that this community choir has had and will continue to have. At the beginning of 2020, Scott and Whitmore would conduct various conversations with choir members asking questions like, what does it mean to you? Why did you choose this place? They received various iterations of the choir acting like a community, a family. People come from different walks of life to participate in this culture. As Whitmore said, “Music isn’t separate from culture. We study music as culture.” In doing so, both she and Scott have gathered qualitative accounts of the impact this has had in people’s lives throughout the community.

In one community conversation conducted by Scott and Whitmore, a member responded, “I sing this music because it helps restore humanity. I feel more human in this space.” Responses like this make the power visible. The choir is here for not only the members but to invite the community into this humane, healing space. More critically, they entertain conversations about who can sing this music? What is the impact of the songs? The choir dedicates time to decoding songs to identify the impact and then also translate those meanings to the audience. The choir has become whiter over time and has encouraged white members to think more critically about their own whiteness as they think through what it means for a white person to sing these songs and advocate for social justice.

They have branched out into various avenues of advocacy and allyship, showing their dedication to social justice and restorative change. With COVID-19, the project is not able to gather psychically but this has not stopped their research. Even still, Whitmore and Scott have found ways to try and carry on the same spirit without the physical meetings and have transitioned to online meetings. Even with restrictions due to the pandemic, the measured impact of the choir is what Scott and Whitmore still aim to study. Once things lighten up, the DU and metro community can expect to see the Spirituals in concert again, sharing messages of suffering, pain, freedom, and justice, in the name of healing and empathy.

Through their ties to the choir, there is a multitude of interactions that both Scott and Whitmore have witnessed. They utilize the strengths of participant observation as well as ethnographic methods in both qualitative and quantitative respects. Through a multilayered approach, their research has great depth and breadth regarding impact and change.

In attending concerts, they have learned how the Spirituals Project translates meaning to their audience through various educational bits throughout the show and most importantly, how this is absorbed by the audience. The act of singing is examined as means of education, social justice and healing through empathy. This project shows great hope for humanity in the direction of empathy.

Learn more about the spirituals project on the Lamont website. If you want to be more involved with the choir and are a student, you are free to join for credit or for leisure! They welcome all with open arms.

February 2019 Performance

CBS Covers the Spirituals Project